Monday, July 6, 2015

A Motive for the Murder of Charles Francis Hall

From Chauncey Loomis's classic Weird and Tragic Shores, to later and lesser tomes such as Bruce Henderson's Fatal North or Richard Parry's Trial by Ice, biographers of Charles Francis Hall have seemed to agree on one thing: his frenetic pace left little room for any kind of love interest. Hall even seems to be one of the very few Arctic explorers never to have any attraction to, or liaisons with, Inuit women. So far as the history books were concerned, he was a man who spent all his romance on the Frozen North, and had no time for paramours. Of course, he was also a married man -- but exactly how warm his conjugal relations were may be judged by the fact that, with three Arctic expeditions spanning more than a decade, he spent no more than a week back home in Cincinnati, visiting his wife Mercy Ann and two children.

And the second, and more pervasive question about Hall was who, if anyone, murdered him. Dr. Emil Bessels, the ship's surgeon of the Polaris, who attended Hall throughout his final illness, and certainly had the opportunity to poison him, was always a leading candidate, but -- aside from the resentment he and all the rest of the German-speaking scientific staff felt toward Hall, it seemed impossible to find any more specific motive.

But, as it turns out, the answer to both these questions was there all along. My curiosity was piqued when I saw an envelope at an online auction, part of the stationery issued Hall and his men, bearing Hall's distinctive counter-signature, and addressed to "Miss Vinnie Ream, 726 Broadway, New York." Miss Ream, it turned out, was not hard to identify; she was a gifted artist, a child prodigy   who was commissioned while still a teenager to do a portrait bust of Lincoln -- for the sake of which the President endured weekly sittings. She was, at the time, the first woman, and the youngest artist, ever commissioned to do a work of art for the U.S. Government.

By 1871, she would have been 23 or 24 years of age. I wondered why Hall would have written her, and so checked out a biography of Ream by Edward S. Cooper, sections of which were available via Google Books. And it was there that I came upon a paragraph that stunned me:
"[Ream] was not always able to establish long-lasting relationships. In the case of the Arctic explorer Charles Francis Hall, it was fate that intervened. Vinnie met Hall in early 1871 in Washington where he was outfitting the ship Polaris for a government expedition to the North Pole. Vinnie was attracted by his bear-like quality, and gave him a photograph of her recently unveiled Lincoln.  On June 19th, Hall sailed down the Potomac bound for a two-week layover at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. He knew that Vinnie was in New York setting up a studio and had dinner with her several times. He was often accompanied by the ship's doctor, a small man who spoke English with a heavy German accent. Hall enjoyed Vinnie's company, but Bessels became instantly infatuated with her. On June 28, he wrote her "While thinking of you all the time and anticipating the pleasure of seeing you tomorrow, we received very unexpectedly an order requiring us possibly to leave early tomorrow. I will never forget the happy hours, which kind fate allowed me to spend in your company before starting our perilous and uncertain voyage."

It appears that the Polaris may have left before Bessels could arrange another meeting. And, from the letter -- written doubtless prior to the ship's last port in Greenland, though it did not arrive in London until October 23rd, and in New York still later -- it's reasonable to assume that Hall was still quite fond of Ream. One has the feeling that Bessels was aware of this lingering love, and that it infuriated him. And, I would hazard to say, it may well have been a double desire -- to put an end to what he feared would be an endless voyage, and to do away with his rival, that motivated Bessels. I think it's fair to say, at least, that he had a very clear, personal motive for doing so.

19 comments:

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    1. Thanks, Glenn -- and yes, me too!! Apparently the accounts of this love triangle survive among Ream's letters, and had escaped all of Hall's earlier biographers!

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  2. Proof (yet again) that history evolves and constantly changes the way we look at the past...and a good thing too, as it keeps historians like us in business!

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  3. Astonishing, Russell. You found a likely cause for this crime.

    I think the combination of the aggressive and frenzied character of Hall together with this new fact, makes the perfect recipe for a crime.

    We should remember that Hall had killed one of his men in cold blood after a bitter argument years before. I can imagine the feelings of an horrified Bessels competing for a woman with a man he knew was a rogue. Bessels could have even felt threatened by Hall during the whole journey. Besides, I guess that the arctic conditions and isolation didn´t help too much.

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    1. Thanks, Andrés. But the fact that Hall had killed a man was, like many Arctic crimes of this era, left behind in the snow -- he was never prosecuted, and it's very unlikely that anyone would have known of it unless he told them -- surely President Grant would never have shared a cigar with Hall if he'd thought him a fugitive from justice. Bessels, to my mind, is more the scoundrel!

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  4. Amazing that this connection has escaped notice until now. Congratulations Russell -- a real find!

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    1. Thanks, Jonathan! But the credit really belongs to the author of the book on Ream; I'm just not sure how much he was aware of what bearing these facts would have on Hall's case. I've ordered a copy, and will then be able to see what Google Books would not preview!

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  5. Hi Russell,

    Thanks for sharing this amazing find: thanks as well for the mention of the additional autobiographies of Hall that I was not aware of, which will soon be added to my library!

    Cheers,
    Greg

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  6. I wonder if any correspondence between Bessels and Vinnie exist. That would be more proof ! Two officers on the USS Polaris , that hated each other's guts - writing to the same single woman.

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    1. Apparently, according to the passage quoted in the book, at least one letter from Bessels to Vinnie Ream does exist. I am also most curious about any letters from Hall. I have written to the author of the Ream biography and will update or post freshly on the blog, depending on what I hear!

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  7. After having researched the life of Vinnie Ream for the past couple of years, it would come as no surprise to me that Bessels could be added to the list of the many illustrious men who become instantly infatuated with her.

    To anyone reading her story, she may come across as an unbelievable mid-19th century combination of Georgia O'Keefe, Clara Barton, Taylor Swift, Fawn Hall, Huma Abedin, and Paris Hilton, but it is all borne out by the record.

    She burst upon the scene in Washington DC at the age of 18, when she won a $10,000 commission to sculpt the statue of Abraham Lincoln that now resides in the Capitol Rotunda. She was already known locally as a gifted singer/musician/songwriter, and was among the first women ever permitted to join the civil service when she joined the Post Office at 15 (she lied about her age).

    For the next 15 years, she was in the center of the capital's social scene, which then as now revolved around the timeless mix of political salons, society gossip, and the occasional sex scandal.

    In addition to her sculpting/singing/songwriting talents, Vinnie was also was an astonishingly accomplished political lobbyist who likely saved Andrew Johnson from impeachment at the age of 20 [an incident which is the subject of a play I am writing] , helped launch K Street as the center of the lobbying industry, and is quite likely the only artist ever to be granted a room in the Capitol Building as studio space. Rent free.

    Her lovers--or rumored lovers-covered a broad spectrum of the era's A-List, including both Union and Confederate generals, former slaveholders and a former slave, secessionists and abolitionists, Indians and Indian fighters, senators, congressmen, poets, composers, and painters. An especially love-struck Cherokee suitor even named the town of Vinita, Oklahoma for her. One interesting similarity among all these men is that they were relatively famous, accomplished, and on average 15-20 years older than she.

    She also had her share of detractors, Mary Lincoln and legendary New York editor Horace Greeley among them. And she was still just a teenager when she somehow incurred the lasting enmity of her Capitol Hill neighbor Mark Twain, who compared her unfavorably to the Artful Dodger in an 1868 article. Twain likely based the main character of his first novel on Vinnie's supposedly scandalous life. That novel, "The Gilded Age A Tale of Today", coined the term that became synonymous with the whole post-Civil War era.

    Unfortunately, relatively few of the letters Vinnie wrote have survived - although the Library of Congress and the University of Iowa have boxes of correspondence she received from her admirers. I believe they include her guest books from her studios in DC, New York and Rome, which just may include the names of Bessels or Hall among them. --Patrick Hickey

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    1. Patrick, thanks for your tip on the guest books -- I'm planning to have a look at this collection next time I'm down in DC, and that sounds like a very promising angle!

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  8. I read Weird and Tragic Shores when it came out in paperback forty years ago. Prior to running across this blog, I thought I was the only person interested in CF Hall (other than Mr Loomis) and his untimely demise.

    Between reading the book and now I became a professional investigator, which only added to my curiosity about Hall's death and who may have caused it.

    It has always interested me that (according to my readings) near his end, Hall seemed to recover when NOT being treated by Bessels. This would seem to indicate (to me) that Hall did not poison himself by accident and that circumstantially Bessels was a prime suspect, but not the only one. There are still Fredrick Meyer with whom Hall quarreled and threatened to "send home in irons". This was only prevented by the other German crew members threats to abandon the expedition. The other suspect is Sidney Budington who was replaced as Captain by Tyson. Tyson suggested that Budington wanted to scuttle the Polaris after Hall's death.

    One must look at whom would gain from the death of Hall to ascertain a prime suspect. This new information seems to add a new dimension to the puzzle.

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  9. I am the great granddaughter of Johann Karl Kruger (referred to as "Robert" in accounts of the Polaris voyage), one of the youngest seamen who sailed with Captain Hall. My father told me as a child about his grandfather's ordeal floating on the iceberg after his group became separated from the Polaris until they were rescued by a Canadian fishing boat. But, the family has died out, and I learned very little of the family history. However, I have a letter dated Sept. 21, 1871, written by Captain Hall to several of the crew, my grandfather included. Hall expresses his appreciation of the letter which they wrote to him, thanking him for his care. He concludes his letter of gratitude by assuring them of his care for them as a "prudent father cares for his faithful children."
    I have only recently become aware of the material that has been written about the Polaris and wonder how my parents, grandmother, aunt, and great aunts and uncles ignored their kinsman's tale of his early youth. I am so grateful to be able to learn of the ordeal that my great grandfather endured with his fellow crewmen, and am awed at their perseverance and endurance. I only wish that I could reach other descendants of the Polaris crew.

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    1. Dear Mary Gruelich Moran, I'm delighted to read your comment, one of the most interesting I've ever received here on my blog. If you have not already, get a copy of Chauncey Loomis's "Weird and Tragic Shores," it is the best account of the Polaris voyage. I would be very interested, if you would be agreeable, in having a post about your great-grandfather -- would you be willing or able to scan or phorograph this note? It is an extraordinary reminder of the voyage. You may reach me at profrap@gmail.com.

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  10. I will be happy to scan the letter and some other items, including a letter from Frederick Meyer written many years after the voyage, in the next few days to the email which you have provided. I learned of the available material about the Polaris only recently when I read In the Kingdom of Ice by Hampton Sides. His introduction describes the rescue of Tyson and the crew by the Canadian fishing boat. You can imagine my shock when I realized that this was my great grandfather's story! Subsequently, I read the journals of Tyson and made note of all the references to my great grandfather. I'm reading Trial by Ice right now, and will read the Loomis book in the future. On the Hall facebook page, there is a map of the Arctic, a copy of which was in my grandmother's papers from her father, and I had it restored and framed. Also, I have the original copies of the two-volume edition of the government publication written about the voyage. I am amused to see that they are on Google docs, as referred to on the same Facebook page. My great grandfather was about twenty-five when he returned to his home in New York City, and his career continued on the water--operating the ferry that runs to 34th Street in Manhattan.

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  11. I just finished reading "Wierd and Tragic Shores" and was looking for more information about Charles Hall's murder when I came across your marvelous report. Many thanks for this. It truly is an important addition to the historical record of Arctic exploration. I became interested in Arctic exploration after spending days personally dragging snow sleds through northern Minnesota and Canada and camping many nights in the deep snow. I came across an engraving from the London Illustrated from 1876 showing the northern sledge group from the Alert making their desperate trek to the Pole. It connected with me and I began reading whatever I could about Arctic exploration. I acquired a few Arctic medals along the way issued to the brave men who explored the Arctic on behalf of the British government. Two years ago I was able to acquire the medal of one of the men shown in the 1876 illustration of the northern sledge party! In addition I possess one from the crew of the Plover that went thru the Bering Strait in search of Franklin, one from The crew that discoved the Northwest Passage and one from the 1853 voyage of the North Star. Thought you might enjoy hearing that.
    Warmest regards Mike Hero

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  12. Hello Russell, thank you for your important research. I just finished reading "Wierd and Tragic Shores" and was looking for more information about Charles Hall's untimely death when I came across your blog. Your input is greatly appreciated.

    I became very interested in Arctic exploration a number of years ago as a byproduct of winter camping. I had been dragging sleds through deep snow in remote wildernesses in northern Minnesota and Canada for a year or two when I came across an 1876 etching from the Illustrated London Times of the Northern Sledge Party from the Nares Expedition dragging a sledge on the desperate journey to the Pole. It immediately made a connection with me. As a result I started reading about these heroic and often tragic explorers and also managed to acquire a number of the Arctic medals issued to them. I acquired one from the crew of the HMS Plover that searched for Franklin from the West, one from the crew of the HMS Investigator that was the first to complete the NW Passage, and one from the HMS North Star from its 1853 voyage. Two years ago I acquired the medal of one of the men shown in the illustration of the Northern Sledge Party from the HMS Alert! i thought that might be of interest to you and provide this information as a modest exchange for the valuable information you just provided. Warmest regards. M. H.

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  13. Thanks Mike! What a great personal story! We all of us come to the Arctic fascination differently ... I only wish that Chauncey had lived to find out about Vinnie Ream!

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